Articles

Must Europe Go RED From Hunger?

LIONEL SHAPIRO September 15 1951
Articles

Must Europe Go RED From Hunger?

LIONEL SHAPIRO September 15 1951

Must Europe Go RED From Hunger?

Articles

LIONEL SHAPIRO

Maclean’s European Correspondent

PARIS

IN THE intensely complicated pattern of western Europe one riddle stands out above all others: What is the source of Communist strength? What hideous magic is possessed by the discredited conspiracy called Communism that it continues to control more than a quarter of the voting power in France and Italy?

Let there be no mistake about it—the national election in France and the municipal vote in Italy, both held last June, brought, sharp disappointment to democratic elements everywhere in the free world. In France the Communist Party polled twenty-four percent of the popular vote, a drop of only five percent in the immense vote it gained in the election of 1946. In Italy the Communists actually increased their popular vote to over thirty percent, a marked improvement over their 1948 showing, and scored striking triumphs in such Catholic strongholds as Sicily and south-central Italy.

These results shocked political leaders all over western Europe. They had had every reason to

expect a crushing defeat for Communism. Tie 1946 and 1948 elections had been held at a time when the European economy was a shambles and when the Red Army’s achievements were still gratefully remembered. But since then western European economy had recovered beyond its prewar levels, and the Communist conspiracy had been stripped bare.

What better evidence could be presented to free peoples than tha Soviet tactics in the United Nations, the spy trials in Canada, the United States and England, the rape of Czechoslovakia, the aggression in Korea, the sickening executions in China? It w ÍS natural to assume that the French and Italian peoples—the frugal, religious, individualistic French and Italians—would no longer be enchanted by the childish fulminations of the Communists. It was logical to hope that the actions of the Soviets and their satellites would destroy Communism as a political power in western Europe. No modern political ideology had more thoroughly condemned itself.

And yet it didn’t happen. Communism not only held its ground but in some cases gained. Politicians stared at the result as at a deep and desolate mystery.

But is it a mystery? As one travels about western Europe studying the people, the mystery dissolves and in its place one finds thousands of minuscule problems, each producing its Communist vote.

Young, Pretty and Pitiful

The face of western Europe’s economy has changed in the last five years, but the face of the factory worker in western Europe has not changed. It is still gaunt, still lined, still scarred by the struggle for day-to-day existence. One sees that face everywhere, among men and women, young and old, in factories and small shops and dismal homes.

I saw such a face in a small dimly lit bar in the city of Lille a few weeks ago. It was the face of a young brown-haired girl who was draped

France and Italy know asi jbaut the Communist world conspiracy but in recent elections more ... ever voted for the Reds. The reason for this paradox, says Shapiro, is that they’re sick of a setup that keeps many of them hungry and leads their women to bargain sin for an uncertain kind of security

decoratively on a stool. She was staring wistfully at a bowl of flowers placed on the bar at her elbow.

On my infrequent visits to Lille, the industrial heart of northern France, I had drunk my apéritifs in this bar near the Hôtel Royal; but never before had it been frequented by a demoiselle. This teen-ager was brazenly dressed in the best tradition of drab trade.

As André, the bartender, mixed my drink I indicated the girl and asked him how long it had been the policy to have demoiselles handy for the customers.

He smiled apologetically. “Business is so slow in the afternoons,” he explained. “We figured if we had a demoiselle here the businessmen might find time to visit us a little earlier. A bottle of champagne and a little squeeze of a pretty girl never did anyone any harm. She is pretty, don’t you think?”

She was pretty indeed, if one could ignore the heavy cosmetics which hid the freshness of her young face. And there was something attractive

and pitiful in the look of her as she sat at the end of an empty row of stools.

“I think she will do well,” André went on, squinting at her in the dim atmosphere. “But we will see. She began work only today. If you would like to buy a bottle of champagne you will be her first client.”

I ordered a bottle of champagne. The girl came to sit on the stool beside me and gingerly put her arm inside mine. Her name, she said, was Carole, but it was not her real name, only the name she had adopted for her new profession as a bar girl. When I asked her how old she was she replied, “Eighteen.” I suspected she had added a year or two to make herself more interesting.

How did she come to work in this bar? The question, sympathetically put, brought the whole story tumbling eagerly from her lips. Until the previous week she had worked in a factory office in Roubaix, an industrial suburb of Lille. She had quit the job because she couldn’t live on the pay.

“It was impossible on twelve thousand francs

($36) a month,” she explained. “The way prices are going up all the time one cannot eat enough. To buy a dress or a pair of shoes is out of the question. There was never one hundred and fifty francs left for the cinema.” She apparently loved the movies. “If I could afford it. I would go every day,” she said.

With a little luck, she confided, it was possible to earn twenty thousand francs a month at the bar. The mention of this exalted figure made her seem a good deal happier. She might even be able to help out her father and mother who lived in Roubaix with a brood of young children to feed.

We drank our champagne in silence. Then I asked, “Do your father and mother know about this new job of yours?”

“But of course!” she replied brightly. “You see t he beautiful flowers on the bar. When I came to work this morning t hey were already here. They are from my father and mother jlo wish me luck. You see how the ribbon says Bonne Chance?”

I paid the bill and made for the door. Carole came after me. The last I heard was her child voice asking, “Why are you leaving so soon? Do I not please you?”

Butter’s a Dollar a Pound

The living standard in industrial Lille creates an atmosphere in which girls like Carole find it logical to enter into a trade that must inevitably lead to prostitution. The area is grey and drab, the houses are old and unhealthy, and the people who live in them walk sadly over cobblestoned streets. Their lean wistful faces betray the exhaustion of a daily race between prevailing wage scales and the cost of keeping alive.

There is, by law, a minimum wage in France. It is sixty-two francs (twenty cents) an hour. Heavy industries in Lille pay higher than the legal minimum. An expert estimate of the average wage for a plant employee in northern France is twentytwo thousand francs (about #65) a month.

Let us take the plant with the most enlightened labor relations in the entire area—the MasseyHarris branch factory at Marquette. The Canadian company employs upward of fifteen hundred men and pays on a scale substantially higher than other comparable industries in France. The hourly wage runs to one hundred and thirty-seven francs an hour for a forty-hour week and goes up by thirtyfive percent for overtime, which means that the average Massey-Harris worker earns twenty-six thousand francs (about #78) a month. Officials explain that the wage cost to the company runs fifty-one percent higher than this, due to pension, health and transportation payments required by law, but nevertheless the take-home pay remains at twenty-six thousand francs.

In the same area workers’ housing runs about twelve dollars a month for the drabbest accommodation. Almost every other necessity for living is almost as high as in Canada, and a few commodities are higher. The cheapest cuts of meat cost sixty-five cents a pound, butter almost a dollar a pound. It is impossible to buy a serviceable pair of shoes under two thousand francs ($6) and the plainest kind of utility clothing is equally expensive. The cost of household drugs is substantially higher than in Canada. The tiniest radio set—surely a minor luxury—sells for more than thirty dollars and the average movie admission is about sixty cents.

On the basis of these prices it becomes an almost insuperable problem for a man earning sixty-five dollars a month to support a family of four or five. What does he do when he steps behind the curtain of the voting booth? Does he cast a ballot to continue the existing state of affairs?

In Paris the same deadly struggle for existence takes place behind Continued on page 61

Continued from page 15

3 more cheerful façade. Wage scales ire higher than in Lille, but so are prices, especially rents, and the contrasts between rich and poor even more sharp.

One evening this summer as I was strolling along the Champs Elysées, a familiar face nodded to me from a sidewalk table at Fouquet’s. It was that of a middle-aged woman, a clerk in the post office where I buy my stamps. She was sitting alone. The next day I twitted her about being unable to find a date for the evening. Her chin came up and she told me defiantly that she “works the sidewalks” at least one evening a week to make up the difference between her salary and her minimum cost of living.

In Paris it is not unusual for presumably respectable office girls to “work the sidewalks” for holiday money or for a new dress or a pair of shoes.

In Rome a year ago the bank clerk who handled my account at the American Express Company told me his salary is twenty-seven thousand lire (about $50) a month. This educated, bilingual, trustworthy man has an extra job at night, washing cars in a garage, so that he can support his wife and small child. Moreover, he told me, he was lucky to have the job with American Express; Italian banks pay less.

As one travels in western Europe such incidents crowd in profusion into each day’s experience, and they provide at least a partial answer to the question: Why do thirty percent of the

people vote Communist?

It is clear that the great majority of those who voted Communist in the June elections in France and Italy are not Communists. In a testing time they would fight bitterly against the encroachment of a Soviet system into their lives. But theirs was a protest vote. They weren’t voting for Communism; they were voting against the economic dilemma in which they find themselves. They were voting for change, for upheaval, for confusion, for anything that would explode them out of a desperate rut of life. They were voting for the most distasteful ideology on the ballot in the same spirit that a hopeless prisoner sets fire to his jail house in the hope that he might escape in the confusion or, as a lesser evil than confinement, die in the flames.

It requires neither a Ph.D. in economics nor keen political wisdom to

figure the basic answer to the problem. It lies in raising the living standard of these discouraged people and at the same time providing them with a legitimate political outlet for their grievances, an outlet within the framework of democratic government.

The problem of raising the French living standard is a sensitive one which has engrossed the best economists of the western world. France is a land exceedingly blessed by nature. It is self-sufficient in most of the resources which make for good living; it is neither overpopulated nor underpopulated;

its people, contrary to Western conceptions, work hard and are frugal; it still possesses a rich productive overseas empire. Even with the ravages of two destructive wars scarring its economy it still possesses the physical assets for an abundant life. And yet more than four million Frenchmen and women voted Communist last June 17 —more than for any other single party.

There is no complete answer to the problem. As long as twenty percent of the national income must go to military expenditures, as long as Europe’s natural trade lines are cut in half

at the iron curtain, no satisfactory cure for the nation’s economic ills is possible. But a great deal that can be done is left undone.

No French government has had the courage to tackle the problem of national morality, which is another term for confidence or faith in one’s country. A prime example is the official estimate that French nationals are at present hoarding gold or dollar credits abroad to the amount of six billion dollars. The importance of this figure becomes clear by its comparison with the value of the bullion currently held in Fort

Knox, by the United States Government-twenty-one billion dollars. If this French gold hoard were turned in to the treasury, where it legally belongs, it might easily make the French franc one of the hardest currencies in Europe. The present gold backing of the French franc amounts to only five hundred and forty million dollars (U. S. funds).

There is no way of returning this gold hoard to bolster France’s financial and trading position except by a new burst of patriotism on the part of the French nation.

The Man in the Squeeze

The same problem of national morality enters into the day-by-day machinery of the French economy. One North American economist who has closely studied the French economy since the war told me that the profit margin of private French industry is unconscionable. The entrepreneurs, whose employees provide the bulk of the Communist vote, can well afford to lower the prices of their products, or raise the wage standard of their employees, or do a little of both, and still wind up with a profit margin which would be considered handsome in North America.

French industrial products like automobiles, tractors and stoves, sell at prices comparable with, or a little higher than, American figures, and yet the French machinist who makes these products averages forty cents an hour while his American counterpart gets between two and three dollars an hour for the same work. Allowing for American living standards and mass production methods there is still a dangerous discrepancy here.

The private answer of some French industrialists is that they are convinced the country is inevitably going Communist and they are taking all the profit the traffic will bear (and transferring as much as possible abroad) while the taking is good. Thus French industry, which desperately fears Communism, makes its unwitting contribution to the Communist vote at every election. And the French farmer, whose fanatic attachment to his land is traditional, does his share of hoarding and price-spiraling which may some day lose him title to his most precious possession.

The solution lies in a combination of faith, morality and patriotism by the French people themselves. Outside economic aid, although essential, cannot do the job alone.

Meanwhile the French wage-earner, the man caught in the squeeze, looks about for a place to register his anguish. The centre parties which he has faithfully voted into power since the war have failed to alleviate his distress. In last June’s election he found himself confronted with a choice between De Gaulle, who dreams of being a sort of male Joan of Arc, and the Communists, who offer revolution, anarchy, but above all, change. In this light it becomes less surprising that the extremist parties gained such substantial blocks of votes.

These points are proven by contrast over and over again in Great Britain where, though (lie standard of living is considerably lower than ours, there is no Communist problem at the polls. Under the inspiration of British morality, both in politics and patriotism, the people have a clear opportunity of forcing economic changes at the polls. They wanted social security after the war and they voted it. Today, according to advance pollsters, they want more economic freedom and will vote accordingly in the next election.

Not Well, But Decently

The whole British political structure, Labor and Conservative, has moved to the Left in sympathy with developing world trends. It is this political sensitivity political wisdom, if you will —that has brought the British nation through this testing time without the encroachment of domestic Communism.

Whether a Conservative or a Labor government is in power, the political stability of Britain lies in a deep and universal recognition that the goal of the nation is a healthy living standard for all, that sacrifices are being made by all classes toward the attainment of this goal. The average British family does not live well, but it lives decently within the limits of a struggling British economy.

War or no war, our generation is in a death struggle with Communism. It is a struggle on two levels, the economic and the military. They are equally Continued on page 64

Continued from page 62 urgent. On the military level the danger can be seen and clearly estimated in naked figuresnumbers of divisions, amounts of materiel, the longitude and latitude of the positions of the potential enemy. On the economic level the danger is not so quickly discernible.

Freedom—and Hunger?

This reporter saw it clearly one night, on the midnight of Sept. 15, 1947, when the Italian peace treaty came into effect. Under its clauses Trieste was made a free city controlled by the British, the Americans and the Yugoslavs. A strip of territory along Italy’s eastern frontier was ceded to Tito’s Yugoslavia.

On that midnight I stood at a barricade in the Italian frontier city of Gorizia. In the last few moments before the deadline some of the border folk were moving into the Italian side, others into the Yugoslav side, each according to his or her political persuasion. The night was alive with impassioned political arguments raging across the barricade. An elderly man on the Yugoslav side of the barricade was shouting to those who had moved into the Italian side.

“You are fools!” he cried. “You boast of your personal liberty, your democracy. But over on this side we hive other things. We may not eat well but we all eat enough. There is

work for all. Our children will not grow up crippled and our daughters do not have to go into the streets. What will you have over there! Freedom! Yes—and unemployment and

hunger and shame . .

Here was a challenge to our way of life which had a ring of reality. But have we tackled it?

We have accepted the military challenge. From Eisenhower’s headquarters in Paris to the UN command posts north of Seoul we are strengthening ourselves against the real and implied threats of Communist aggression. We are facing the military challenge with sacrifice and bravery.

It is not enough. The keener challenge lies well behind our frontiers. It lies in Lille and in Lyons, in Milan, Siena and Barcelona; it lies in providing answers to the argument of the man on the Gorizia barricade; it lies in giving a hope of life to the Rome bank clerk and to the Roubaix worker who sent his daughter a few flowers to sweeten the drab path into prostitution.

The Soviets realize that the struggle is being fought on two levels. If they do not choose military aggression to gain their objectives it will mean that they are satisfied to wait until we have destroyed our own world by our own errors, individual, national and international.

It may well be that we are winning on the military level. But that is only half the battle. Perhaps less than half the battle. it: